Continuing interesting conversation on the WPA listserv about Wardle and Downs’ CCC article. I also read some interesting comments from Mike and Kevin. All of this has me thinking some more, so I’m going to try to distill this down to a few observations.
- I think we agree that being a good writer is not the same as being a good teacher of writing. They are different skills, different talents, different practices, different bodies of knowledge, etc. The discipline of composition studies the formal teaching and learning of writing in colleges (it does other things, but this is a primary one and particularly germane to the Wardle/Downs article). You study composition theory to become a good teacher of writing, not to become a good writer. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but I don’t see studying composition theory as a logical way to becoming a "good writer."
- I agree with Wardle/Downs that one of the pitfalls of FYC is the concept of a universal literacy and/or general academic discourse that students are supposed to learn (and master!) in FYC. This thing doesn’t exist. No one can simultaneously teach students to write philosophy essays, economics research papers, and biology lab reports. Certainly learning to write literary criticism won’t help you do these things. Learning to write about pop culture or do cultural critique won’t help you with these tasks, and neither will learning to write about composition theory. Or perhaps I should say they’ll all help you about the same.
- What FYC can do (and I think many folks already do this) is teach students to become conscious of their own writing practices and teach them methods of studying and acquiring the discursive practices of the various communities they enter.
Still that doesn’t answer the question of what students should write.
Let me also say, before I press on, that I don’t think this is in opposition to what Wardle and Downs suggest. Maybe this is all just some disagreement about the reading list. Nor is any of this business I’m writing now in any way new, nor should it be. After all, we’re talking about introductory concepts here. The primary problem that I face (and I imagine most FYC teachers face) is that students don’t want to write. They have negative associations with writing in the classroom, and even if they didn’t, writing is a mentally taxing activity, particularly when one is dealing with complex content, and not something you’d jump into without some real motivation (and apparently the grade is not enough of a motivation).
In short, the basic challenge is not about skills or knowledge. It’s about motivation. Students have to want to become better writers and be willing to work hard to do it. It’s not any easier than getting daily exercise or eating a healthy diet or staying out of debt. But there aren’t any short cuts. Of course motivation is an issue in any kind of teaching, but I think it’s especially important for writing. If you want to write and start writing on a regular basis, there will be almost no way that you can’t improve as a writer. Motivation may not be sufficient on its own for becoming a "good writer," but it certainly is necessary.
After motivation, I think you begin to approach issues of audience, purpose, and genre, as well as discussing writing practices. I think that if you can teach students to perform this basic level of rhetorical analysis and apply that knowledge tactically in writing, you would have a highly successful FYC program. In short, you’d be producing students who write on a regular basis, who can describe the audiences of different texts, who can articulate the purpose of a text they read and purposes for the texts they write, and who have practiced methods for studying a writing genre (e.g the lab report) and identifying its salient features.
I don’t think there’s really any need to read rhetorical theory texts to get these concepts. They are so very basic; there’s not much to know. The problem isn’t understanding the concepts but rather practicing them. It’s like many practices: the concept of hitting a golf ball isn’t all that complex, right? So an FYC course has to offer students
- motivation for writing
- a real audience to write to/for (the students in the course might suffice, but a larger audience would be better I think)
- real world purposes for writing that the students share
- an actual genre (or genres) in which to write (as opposed to the non-genre of "academic discourse")
I suppose that’s as close as I’m going to get to a prescription for what college students should write. So in the end I don’t really object to reading comp theory in FYC, if that’s something that motivates students to write, and as long as students end up actually writing rather than practicing writing or producing some simulacra of writing.